Thursday’s matinee against No. 11 Wisconsin had all the main plot points and a similar ending to the previous shows at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Stretches of competent, competitive play? Check. Extended scoring droughts to give back whatever ground the Huskers had made? Check. Defensive lapses that allowed one of the opponents to go off? Check. The Huskers making a game of it in the last eight minutes only for the opponent to close it out? Check.
The ending was all too predictable at this point in the season: for the ninth straight time and the 14th overall, the game ended in a Nebraska loss. The Huskers fell to the Badgers 73-65 in their first game back after a week-long pause triggered by positive COVID-19 tests.
Four Badgers scored in double figures led by super senior Brad Davison with 21. Among them were Bellevue West alumnus and Wisconsin freshman Chucky Hepburn, who was playing with a heavy heart after losing a close friend, Vince Burns, in a shooting earlier in the week. Hepburn finished with 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting (3-of-5 from deep) and three steals. After the game, Coach Fred Hoiberg shared a moment with Hepburn.
“I saw the article about Chucky’s friend that passed away unfortunately, and we got in late with Chucky when we got the job,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a phenomenal, phenomenal kid and a great family. So I just I just expressed my condolences to him and let him know how sorry I was and to keep doing a great job. He was phenomenal, especially early in this game. We knew he’d be charged up coming back to play in front of family in this building where he won a state championship, but he’s a world class kid and I certainly wish him the best.”
The Badgers shot under 33% inside the arc but offset that with 10-of-22 shooting from deep and out-rebounded the Huskers 13 to two on the offensive end to win the possession battle.
Bryce McGowens led the Huskers with 23 points on 7-of-14 from the filed (3-of-7 from 3) and 6-of-6 from the foul line. Trey McGowens made his first start since breaking his foot against Creighton in the third game of the year and played 28 minutes. Alonzo Verge Jr. and Lat Mayen chipped in 11 points and five boards apiece. The Huskers shot 40% from the field incurring 35% from deep.
The teams traded blows early with three ties and three lead changes in the first six minutes. The Huskers hit their first five shots form the field, then locked in on defense and opened up a five-point lead with a corner 3 from C.J. Wilcher and a pair of free throws from Bryce McGowens.
After an extended drought from the field, however, the Badgers caught fire from the perimeter, hitting five 3s in a row (three by Davison, two by Hepburn) to take a 26-21 lead. The Huskers scored the next two buckets before Davison hit another triple to make it six straight makes from deep. He hit five 3s in the first half and became Wisconsin’s career leader in the 3s in the process.
“I feel like we’re locked in defensively from the start,” Bryce McGowens said. “But as the game went on, I feel like we gambled a lot defensively, leaving a lot of 3-point shooters open and they hit some tough shots.”
After a promising start, Nebraska’s offense started to break down, however. The Huskers missed their next five shots as Wisconsin scored seven straight including another Davison triple to open up a 10-point lead. Verge ended the drought with a three-point play, but the Huskers didn’t score in the last 1:40 and the Badgers took a 39-31 lead into halftime.
After that 5-for-5 start, Nebraska shot 6-for-23 the rest of the half. Verge led Nebraska with nine points. The Huskers shot 39.3% overall including 3-of-10 from deep and turned the ball over seven times.
“I thought we had great execution early, came down and had really good offense, I thought, with execution, and that was a concern with a layoff that we had, not being able to practice much with as many guys as we had out,” Hoiberg said. “We got through that so I thought we were off and running, we were going to have a great half. And then we got stagnant and we took a couple bad shots when they went on a run. That’s kind of the theme that we’ve got to find a way to fight through, is when teams go on runs, we’re not going to go back and get it individually. You’ve got to continue to do things that have made us successful, which we had a lot of success early in that game, and then that carried over into the second half.”
Wisconsin star Johnny Davis (22.2 points per game) missed all five of his shots and played just 13 minutes in the firs half after picking up two fouls, but Davison put up 17 points and shot 5-of-6 from deep as the Huskers did a poor job of tracking him and crowding his space on the perimeter. Wisconsin shot just 4-of-24 inside the arc but offset that by going 9-for-14 from deep as Hepburn hit three of them — including one deep in the shot clock on the first possession of the game — and 7-footer Steven Crowl chipped in another.
Mayen opened the second half with a dunk on a broken play, but Wisconsin scored on its next four possessions to open up a 47-33 lead. The lead continued to grow as Nebraska missed its next 12 shots from the field after the Mayen dunk. The lead swelled to 18 before Verge finally ended an eight-and-a-half-minute drought from the field with a layup.
Hepburn answered Verge’s layup with a bucket of his own to push it back to 18, then the McGowens brothers dragged the Huskers back into the game with an 11-0 run featuring two 3s and a tough runner from Bryce plus a layup and a free throw from Trey.
“I feel like the people on the floor, we we kept the energy high,” Bryce McGowens said. “We were like, ‘The game’s not over.’ On made shots, missed shots, we emphasized running. If you saw the second, late second half, we ran, played with pace and space, which we should play with every night and what we stressed. I feel like that last stretch, that’s how we played.”
The magic ran out, though, as Davis ended the run with a pair of free throws, then Hepburn recorded back-to-back steals, finding Davis for a layup after one and taking it all the way himself for a dunk after the other, pushing the lead back to 13.
The Huskers cut the deficit to eight with just over three minutes to play, but that’s as close as they got as the Badgers closed it out. The Huskers played the Badgers to a draw in the last 20 minutes as the Badgers cooled off from deep, shooting 1-of-10 from 3.
Davis scored 13 points in the second half but finished 5-of-12 from the field and 3-of-5 from the foul line.
“I thought Trey did an unbelievable job, really, all game against Johnny Davis, obviously one of the best players in the country right now,” Hoiberg said.
Nebraska will return to the court at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday to host Rutgers still seeking its first Big Ten win.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.